Dr. Durlak is an Associate Professor in the Mass Communications Programme at York University, Associate Director of CulTech, and the Research Director of Intercom Ontario. His degrees are from Notre Dame University, Stanford University and Michigan State University where he received a PhD in Communications Research. He has been the Director of the Communication Arts Programme in the Faculty of Education and Director of the Mass Communications Programme in the Faculty of Arts. He has done applied research and evaluation tasks as well as training programmes for international, federal, provincial and municipal agencies. He has also supervised large scale interdisciplinary research projects in Canada, the United States and Latin America.
He currently teaches courses on communications policy and the social impacts of new communications and telecommunications technologies. He also directs the Interactive Multimedia Lab at the University and teaches the advanced Interactive Multimedia Seminar in the Mass Communications Programme. From 1987 to 1990, he was the editor of Minds in Motion, a collaborative publication between York University and Apple Canada that explored leading edge software developments in Canada. He has written extensively on interactive media, communication networks, new communication technologies, machine mediated learning, computer gaming and simulation, distance learning and urban design. His most recent publication is The Effects of Information Technology on Large Urban Regions, The Changing Canadian Metropolis, Etd. by Frances Frisken, The Urban Institute, Berkeley, California, 1994.
Dr. Durlak described uses of telecommunications at Kelliam College, which is part of an on-line community. Students have access to e-mail, internet, and video conferencing. Sixty percent of students in residences own their own computer. In Dr. Durlak’s computer lab at York U, students have a key to the door, can bring in food, and have made the lab their “own place”. In seven years, they have had no break-ins and have not lost any equipment.
The belief system in place promotes an atmosphere of trust, acceptance and ownership. Students are trusted, and therefore act in trustworthy ways. Students are accepted and given ownership of their own learning, and in response, they value and respect the premises in which they can further their learning.
Dr. Durlak also discussed how the industries of print, telecommunications, television, computers and consumer electronics are no longer kept apart by a fundamental difference in their technologies. An implication for the study of belief systems is that the flow of information will change, our interactions with others will change, our interactions with the environment will change, and this may have an effect on our internal processing.
Consciousness, Language and Perception
Dr. Durlak describes an issue that may be important in the consideration of consciousness, our use of language, and our perception of ourselves and others. He identifies the development of a “digital persona”, which is the form of social identity that individuals acquire as their electronic activities become influenced by - and are often mediated through - digital representations of themselves. He describes the creation of a digital persona through our interactions with ATM banking machines, credit cards, air miles cards at grocery stores and gas stations, and how a person may be represented a number of different ways on different databases which collect information about our transactions. Dr. Durlak questions the public awareness of such information gathering, and whether we have any freedom or control over how our “digital persona” is construed and used by others.
Dr. Durlak also described the digital persona we project, purposefully or inadvertently, when we communicate electronically. For example, how quickly we respond to email, what types of comments we make, the number of messages we send, and how through these interactions, others may infer things about our personality. Again, the question of awareness and attention arises, and our ability to determine and control how we represent ourselves when communicating electronically, and how we are represented by others who infer things about us as a result.
Development and Emotion
Norman (1980) believes the human learns new concepts throughout the entire life span. Humans are fundamentally organisms that learn, that develop over time. Dr. Durlak proposes that the educational culture will have to change as a result of children knowing more about the technology, and teachers knowing more about the curriculum. He suggests that the successful implementation of technology in schools requires changes, (1) in teaching methods and presentation, (2) roles of staff, and (3) roles of parents. Education will have to change because children know more about technology than do their parents and teachers. Educational and psychological research should ask, are there developmental differences between children who grow up in a technologically rich environment, and those who have not?
Durlak’s comments about the different technological experience of children and adults seem to also be relevant to a consideration of emotion. Perhaps adults and children differ in their affective response to the use of technology because of their different developmental experiences related to technology. Developmentally, children have grown up with technology as an “invisible” or accepted part of their daily experience. It is often suggested that children experience little or no fear, and less or little reluctance about interacting with and using computers than do their adult counterparts. Norman suggests we should study how children and adults differ developmentally. It would be interesting to study whether cognitive development is affected by early exposure to and interaction with technology, and how this may be different for adults and children.
Dr. Durlak described a new community in New Market, Ontario, which is unique in that all homes, schools and businesses have been built with high speed telecommunications connectivity. When people purchase a home, they can finance the purchase of a computer as a part of their mortgage. Schools and businesses are on-line, and this will lead to changes in the way that the public communicates with educators and business people. Dr. Durlak described the community as being multicultural and middle class. He described many of the new members of the community as “technological laymen” who perceive the new technology in an early, clumsy form, which then becomes their image of its nature, possibilities and use. This community faces many exciting challenges adapting to and adopting the new electronic communication culture. It seems that Durlak is describing a “training wheels” or novice stage in our technological interaction, that will change and develop over time. It would be interesting to study interaction in this environment, and contrast it with interaction in a less technology-rich environment.
Norman (1980) suggests that we supplement our intelligence with social interaction, by our use of the environment, and through the construction of artifacts. Norman (1980) believes that more research should be done in cognitive science to examine the individual cognitive processes as they are used in interactive settings. Durlak identifies the potential of broadband networks, to (1) connect people to other people, (2) make more information available to people, (3) bring more learning, work and service to people, and (4) change the way we spend our leisure time. He also argues that new technologies are not change agents, that people are the change agents, and effects on interaction will be driven by people, not by technology. It would be very interesting to study whether people, outside of the work or academic environment, are driven to use the electronic medium to supplement their intelligence. Durlak identifies the potential for increased social interaction and access to information with broadband networks, however he does not delve into individual motivation to use technology in a goal directed manner.
Learning (and Motivation?)
Dr. Durlak described teachers and students at York U who embraced readily available communication technology, and made things possible in the classroom that have not been possible before, such as the Toronto Star Project. In this project, a major Canadian newspaper is participating in a consortium with York University. Undergraduate students electronically publish three magazines for three different undergraduate audiences. Students research, design, produce, and disseminate information electronically. Durlak seems to be suggesting that these students are learning differently than would have been possible with traditional publishing technology. He predicts that as we build more wired schools, that teachers and students will continue to move from a teacher-focused, to a student-oriented approach to learning. Durlak’s view here seems to suggest that technology is the change enabler, which contradicts his assertion that people are agents for change. The publishing process was facilitated by technology, but could the same project have been accomplished using traditional publishing methods? The answer, or course, is yes, though not nearly as easily. It seems that ready access to technology motivated both the teachers and students to extend their learning in different ways.
Further to the question of motivation and learning, Durlak suggests that remote access to information using broadband networks means that education will come to the student. This learning will be more suited to the individual, and learning will be on demand (any time, any topic). These are very provocative, and visionary statements. My question is, WHO will suit this learning to the individual? WHO will be motivating students to access this learning? Parents? Teachers? Who will mediate, or direct this kind of learning? Will humans be motivated to construct learning environments for themselves?
Related to previous comments on possible developmental differences between children brought up in a technology rich environment, and those who are brought up with less technology, are questions related to the impact on memory of early and continued use of such technology. Will humans organize and retrieve information from memory in different ways as a result of using structured databases, internet browse tools and search engines, and electronic communication tools? Durlak does not even come close to discussing memory organization and retrieval, however he does point to a gender difference in using NetScape. It seems that males in residences at York spend more time on NetScape surfing the net, or browsing different sites of interest, whereas females appeared to be more task-oriented, and spent their time on NetScape gathering information from sites related to their research topics. Durlak does not mention how differences were measured. It would be interesting to study whether cognitive organization and retrieval are affected by use of Internet browse tools. Gender seems to be an irrelevant question until we determine whether humans in general organize and retrieve information differently.
Performance and Skill
Durlak did not really overtly address either performance or skill issues in his presentation. However, it would be interesting to study how humans organize their knowledge of the procedures used to interact with the world via broadband networks. It is fascinating to discuss people’s perceptions of how the electronic network is physically organized with cables and hardware, and how this translates into a network of computers and the capability of communicating. Issues of skill may translate into different classes of humans; those who have learned how to take advantage of this broadband network for their information needs, and those who have not, or cannot. Will the novice information gatherers be dependant on those who have become expert?
Norman (1980) describes the computer as an artificial extension of our intellect, invented by humans to extend human thought processes. Durlak presented a very positive and excited view of how human thought will be changed as a result of access to technologies that facilitate new ways to communicate and exchange information. He presented the view that computers were agents, or catalysts, for this change in human thinking. Ultimately, it will be humans who direct and control this change. I am not so sure I can readily accept Durlak’s rather simplistic view. I prefer Norman’s (1980) cautious view, that we may perhaps forego some forms of thought once computers, or broadband network access, becomes commonplace. Perhaps we will only be able to study the affects on human thought in retrospect. Perhaps these changes are a natural part of our evolution, our cognitive destiny. Who knows?